Thursday, August 10, 2017

13 Reasons Why Education Transformation Is Slow, Challenged

Recently, Modern Learners wrote a piece about pending educational transformations. Naturally, this is not a new topic. Many have predicted sweeping change before. However, this time, the author indicates that it’s going to be different. (See complete article here:
The article’s initial contention has always been mine. The question is asked: “Given the number of books that have been written and papers that have been presented around  school change over more than 50 years by some very well informed and esteemed writers, why has there been so little change in schools and why do you think it will be any different this time ?”
First of all, I hope the writer is right. I would love nothing more than to see our entire educational system truly evolve and adapt into real 21st century models relevant to today’s students, economy, culture and technology. The problem is that my shoulder angel and devil are battling it out. It’s classic optimism vs. traditional pessimism.
Since I began teaching in 1990, there has been an on-going reform movement, in many cases discussing many of the same things, but truly little has changed. We have been hearing terms such as relevance, engagement, application, higher level thinking, personalization, technology for a long time. And yet, when one looks closely, very little has changed overall in terms of our educational system and culture.
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In addition to the question above, I would also add to that list thousands of keynote speakers, blog posts, consultants and conference sessions. All have been calling for sweeping change, while often presenting the path on how to do so.
The thesis here is that we are now in the perfect storm - educationally, politically, economically, culturally, technologically - for real change to occur. My shoulder angel wants to believe, but my shoulder devil is struggling to find the confidence. I agree that we are in unprecedented times and it seems the time is riper than ever for real change. But in addition to the factors being in place that are referenced above, I think there are still too many things in the hearts, minds and souls of all the stakeholders that will derail us once again.

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Here are my 13 reasons why education will continue to be challenged when it comes to change:

  1. Our Cultural Definition Of School - A True Learning Organization?
As a culture, we tend to not truly look at school as a place of learning. We want to, we pretend to and we come close to at times. But truly our definition of school, especially high school, is really not about a culture of learning. Ask most parents and students about what their expectation of high school or what they are looking forward to. You’ll get more responses about athletics, co-curricular, extra curricular, dances and so on than you will about real learning. Sure, Don’t get me wrong. I love things that are fun and social. But why can’t our learning be fun and social? Why can’t the learning be so compelling and transformational that it’s all we talk about? Since it’s often not, we use the other things (extra and co-curricular) to do that for us. We cannot continue to design and base our schools on the extra - we have to make the meat the best part. We somehow need to establish with all stakeholders what our purpose is what will take priority. Culturally this will  be difficult as we have allowed school to be defined dozens of ways - and it’s now time to make sure we are truly focused on creating happy, creative, inspired lifelong learners of all students. Anything else or less will not suffice.

  1. Parents
Some parents are aware that schools needs to change. They are aware that world is rapidly changing and school should reflect that. However, too many parents want school to be like what they know and experienced. Saying things like “it worked for me” in regards to homework, discipline, lack of student voice and choice, outdated pedagogy, etc. are not an answer to what our students need to be successful today and especially tomorrow. Parents need to also put learning, real learning, at their top of their school/education agendas (see #1). Parents need to become more informed about the new economy and globalized world in which our students are entering.

  1. Students
It would be so easy to leave students off of this list. Indeed, they are really victims of a system that has not evolved as much as they have...or even the world has. However, the potential for them to have an impact is incredible. Many students are dissatisfied with their school and educational experiences. However, they, like most of us, need to turn complaining/whining into advocacy. It’s their education and their futures, so they should be the most important voice. Students need to learn to intellectually demand what they want or need from their schools. And they need to do this to parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, community leaders and anyone who may listen willingly or not. I think when the majority of students truly demand something better, the tipping point will occur. Indeed, students do have more educational options that ever before. They are also more savvy, connected and capable than ever before. Apathy needs to be converted to Advocacy.

  1. Teachers
Teachers are obviously integral, and maybe the most important, when it’s all said and done in terms of what our schools are truly like. There are many things that have worked against teachers  that have been out of their control - class sizes, bureaucracy, weak leadership, funding, initiative fatigue and more. However, there are things that are in their control, for the most part, that they need to begin to lead. I don’t want to argue for or against teachers’ unions. That being said, it seems that weak, or even criminally negligent teachers, have been allowed to survive. Almost every school in America has a teacher or two that the entire staff knows is bad for kids. But somehow, we have learned to tolerate and accept this. Just like law enforcement, we have to be responsible for our own. We have to collectively and collaboratively address those teachers. They need to get on board or get out. You know who they are and so do they. They give the profession a bad name and we can’t afford that any longer. We need to redefine the role of a teacher and celebrate how wonderful it can be. If we do, maybe more will go into the profession. Teachers need to take charge and become their own curriculum creators, curators and advocates. If they continue to teach to a textbook or test, they can’t help to get what they get.

  1. Administrators
We have been asking our administrators and site leaders to be instructional leaders for several years now. However, too many are not. Too many administrators focus on facilities, discipline, extra curricular, etc. Many are not even interested in curriculum & instruction. Many were not teachers for very long. Many were not distinguished as a teacher at all. Too many are disconnected from professional development, technology, lifelong learning, professional learning networks, modeling and so much more. Despite the poor examples of leadership that we are often seeing in the current political environment, school leaders need to read, study and model themselves after successful 21st century leaders in industry. They need to practice and preach openness, accessibility, flexibility, bottom up approaches, democratization and so much more. Site leaders need to be the living examples of fearlessness, risk taking, innovation, experimentation, early adopters, pioneers and cage rattlers.

  1. Models
In the end, we have few models to look to for in terms of change and inspiration. Yes, they are there. Yes, there are charters, choice schools, magnets and others that are doing many things right. But the dominant model of comprehensive education is outdated. And we tend to perpetuate or clone the outdated model. Most schools are similar more than they are different. It is changing and there more models than there were 20 years ago. Indeed, efforts like the XQ Super School Project ( are steps in the right direction. But we need to see examples across all communities, all districts and ultimately we need to challenge/incentivize one another to create new examples that are truly unique/responsive. We can’t look to higher ed as they are even more behind. Checking out Finland is great, but we need to see more models here in every neighborhood. Every district and community should be creating innovative, unique programs to help individual students and the entire system.

  1. Innovators Go Elsewhere
We might preach innovation and creativity, but we tend to marginalize both teachers and leaders who are ‘pushing the envelope.” Indeed, some of them leave education altogether and many are beaten down to conform. We need to talk less and walk more. If we want innovation and creativity, we not only need to model it, but we need to embrace, chase it and challenge it. Compounded by a national teacher shortage, we’re going to need to redefine the education profession and attract young people who are, by nature and experience, entrepreneurial, innovative, creative, fearless and self-starters.

  1. The Colleges & Universities
Too much of our system, especially our secondary system, takes its marching orders from the colleges and universities. Even though our college graduation, completion and success rates are dismal, they dictate the requirements, expectations and compliance items to our high school. Less than half, in most cases far less, of our high school graduates start go straight to the a university. So why do we have the university dictate our curriculum. Ironically, a large percentage of our higher ed. Instruction is further behind than K-12. Their dominant instructional model is still lecture and note taking - truly the lowest form of learning for students. Since a K-12 education is the expected standard for all, then that should be the priority and design a better system from within. Higher Ed. needs to listen, collaborate and follow a whole lot more.

  1. Compliance
Like so many entities in our systems, we spend more time on compliance that we do on the Four C’s, pedagogy, student relationships, school culture, community connections and so many others. Seems like most things we do in order to deliver a standard, right or expectation ends up becoming its own bureaucracy. Think about Special Education, 504’s, ELL, Accountability, Attendance, Accreditation and so many more. Intentions are good, but implementation and practice become something else. Have we asked our schools to do much? Possibly and probably. But beyond that, what is our focus? What are in the business of doing in school? Until we can all answer the question together, we will focus more on compliance vs. learning. We need to radically simplify oversight, documentation and accountability.

  1. Size

Many of our high schools today have class sizes in the 40’s. Simply, we all know that smaller is better. High Schools with 700 students have different cultures and opportunities than those of 3,000. Classrooms with 25 have a very different culture typically than those with 45. And yes, fixing this is easier said than done. Yes, it may cost more. But the cost of not fixing it is astronomical. If you want all students to be engaged, participating and have effective feedback, then we cannot expect a teacher to facilitate five or more classes of 40+. We know we need personalization, project-based learning, students producing high quality and public work, technology integration, real world applications and community interaction, work-based learning and more. However, if we continue to put 40+ in our high school classrooms, the more we will continue to not deliver on our promises and continue to set up our rooms for lectures and note taking.

  1. The Buildings & Physical Spaces
Remember that our schools were originally designed to be ‘institutions.’ I know that we cannot build entirely new schools everyday. However, we also don’t need to live with buildings and classrooms that haven’t changed in 50 years. Do we need the same old dreary rooms, hallways and offices? How many of us are excited to walk into our school buildings? Are they comfortable and inviting? One, we should invest in our spaces. Two, if we build new schools, we can do them smarter. Instead of building the $200 million high school complex, we could build 15-20 small schools that are unique, specialized and contemporary. There has been a recent focus on classroom design and it’s the right direction. It’s another area where we may want to ask the customer (the students) what works best for them. I can tell you desks in rows are not on the menu.

  1. School Boards
Local control and leadership of our schools is in theory great ideas. Our communities should have the right to create the best and most unique schools. Ironically, most of our schools don’t differ very much. Indeed, too many are just clones or duplicates of schools in their neighboring district. It seems like too many school board members may be there for the wrong reasons. Too many are their for their own political career advancement, own political agendas and pet projects. School board candidates need to be truly unselfish individuals who care about the kids in their community and want to work collectively to have something better, more innovative and more relevant than ever before. Status Quo people can run for church fundraising chair or local lodge leadership, but not for the people who have the fate of our future in their hands.

  1. Our local communities and leaders.
Schools are not going to be the exceptions in our communities. If our communities are disconnected, violent, poverty-stricken, in disrepair or worse, how can we expect our schools to be different or the shining star on the hill? Schools need to engage the larger community in every way and local community leaders/advocates need to engage with the schools diligently.

Hoping The Aforementioned Writer Is Right, Hoping That I’m Wrong

I truly want my shoulder angel to win. I see lots of signs and reasons to be optimistic. But my experience, as well as awareness of the challenges, often give my shoulder devil much to smile about.

(photos courtesy of foter, pixabay, shutterfly, allthefreestock)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Five Ways To Make All Students Into Lead Learners (Teachers)

It has been established long ago that the highest form of learning is teaching. When one is put in the position to teach others, one learns the content and concepts at the highest applied level in order to successfully communicate it to others.
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This reality has led many educators long ago to turn as much of the instruction in their classroom over to students through student presentations, projects and more.
That being said, too many students still never have this opportunity to become Lead Learners - where they learn at the highest level by having the responsibility of teaching others. Here are five ways all educators can expand the opportunity for all students to learn at the highest level by all becoming teachers:
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Again, students have been giving presentations in many cases for years in certain courses. I suppose even the early  years of Show & Tell were intended to have every student present, or tell a story. Well, we need to challenge all of our students to become master story tellers and presenters. All students need to have multiple opportunities to become an expert in various research-based deeper learning activities where they get to present their findings, conclusions, applications and more all in a professional environment using professional applications and technology. Additionally, we need to teach the explicit skills required to deliver a professional presentation. Too often, we assign presentations only focus on the content instead of the delivery as well. Of if we focus on the delivery, we don’t actually teach the requisite skills. We all know Death By Powerpoint. Well, let’s teach students to avoid this. There are dozens of resources, but having students get exposed to things like Nancy Duarte and Slide:ology would be appropriate ( In addition to getting all students to be master presenters and storytellers in order to achieve the highest levels of learning, these presentation skills will be used repeatedly in job interviews and professional environments for a lifetime.

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Again, we have had students in various school roles for years. We have had Teacher Assistants, Cafeteria Volunteers, Attendance Monitors, Class Monitors, Drum Majors, ASB Officers and many others. But it’s time to ratchet this up a bit - or even a lot.
For example, what if one’s class or program had a Media Coordinator responsible for coordinating the video work? Or a Social Media Coordinator handling the class Facebook, Instagram and Twitter Accounts? How about a Project Coordinator responsible for calendars, roles, timelines and deliverables? One could keep going with a Design Coordinator, Social Coordinator, Web Coordinator, YouTube Channel Coordinator, Community Coordinator and many others. How about Peer Coaches? If it’s good enough for adults, why not students? It’s not about titles for title sake (although students do respond to positions). It’s about students taking greater responsibility for the strategic roles in the classrooms. It’s about allowing students to bring their expertise and experience forward for the greater good, while also enhancing their skills, resumes and portfolios.
Another former school of mine created the Student Project Coordinator as a means to expand the role of students. Students who were advanced in a given curricular area, or showed tremendous enthusiasm and skill, could apply for this position that had students in the role of facilitator of learning. Instead of Teacher’s Aide, or gloried gopher, a Student Project Coordinator lead sessions, coached small groups, organized model lessons and demonstrations, and much more.
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We need to create systems where students have to not only do regular presentations, but also practice reflective learning in regular semester or annual presentations. These not only get them to present their best work and learning, but also again teach them again and therefore continue to learn at a higher level. If it’s good enough for graduate students and doctoral candidates, it’s good enough for all students. Many classes, programs and schools have started to have their students do Final Reflective Oral Presentations - Defense of Learning - in order to capture this deeper learning experience. My former school - Minarets High School ( - designed a year-end portfolio presentation students would do each year entitled the Personal Brand Equity. This culminating project not only required them to analyze and assess their learning and best work, but also do the same for them as a growing, learning and ever-improving young adult (skills focus). See some pics of these presentations here: Reflection, presenting and teaching will represent the highest form of learning these students can both experience and demonstrate.
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All students need the opportunity to become experts - experts in various focused areas of their content studies, as well as experts in professionals areas of choice. As our educational pedagogy becomes more project-based, students will have greater opportunities for deeper learning like this. In their core and other courses, teachers and students will collaborate to design challenges and areas of inquiry where students focus deeply on specific aspects of the content and its application. PBL expects that students will have voice and choice on what they study deeply and how they will demonstrate their learning. In that spirit, many teachers are discovering the tremendous opportunity to make their students experts through choice projects such as 20 Time Projects or Genius Hour pursuits. These are in-depth and often long-term project pursuits specifically based on a student’s interest. They choose what they want to learn more about and how they will again demonstrate it. It’s the ultimate version of Student Voice and Choice. But again, it clears the adult or teacher out of the way giving the student full rights and means to become the expert, to become the teacher and to ultimately the Lead Learner in this given area. Not only does this lead to learning at the highest or deeper levels, but also relates to the skills our students are going to need in the gig economy. They will often have to create their own work. For more on 20 Time Projects/Genius Hour, please visit:, and

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Again, educators need to explicitly design project opportunities that are culminating, capstone type projects for our students. This is not a new idea. We have had senior projects at the college and secondary level for years. However, these can take a 2.0 to them as well where students have a chance to choose areas in which to pursue for their culminating learning experience. At my last high school where I served as the site leader (, we created the Senior Legacy Experience. This was our version of a senior project. Students could choose an area that they were advanced in throughout their four years (AG, Arts, Athletics, AP, Academics, Media, IT, Core Subjects, etc.) and then pursuit something that would be impact the school and community. Check out the Minarets SLE Projects here:   Unlike the portfolio, reflective quality of the Personal Brand Equity or Defense of Learning presentations, these are more again about student choice, expertise, passion and deeper learning. These are also often opportunities for students to see their learning and work have impact beyond themselves. These could be applied well beyond the senior experience. Maybe we do them at least as we move from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, high school to postsecondary, etc. There are many ways and reasons to design these capstone experiences. So, instead of another template, think about how we can create these for all of our students in our courses, programs and schools.

As usual, I’m not pretending that this list is complete or the best. However, I would like to challenge all of us to think of our students as teachers, experts and lifelong lead learners. They can all teach and therefore learn at highest, deepest levels.

(Images courtesy of Minarets High School, Foter, Pixabay and others)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Going Public and Going Pro: The Power of Portfolios, Publishing & Personal Branding

One of the quintessential elements of project-based learning is producing a PUBLIC PRODUCT. Having all of our students produce high quality public work, especially in the 21st century digital world and economy, is truly essential.

First of all, it connects to other of our PBL Design Elements: (a) Authenticity - Having a Public Product makes it more real for students. Making learning real for students makes it authentic, (b) Critique & Revision: Having a Public Product also allows for greater feedback (students, teachers, professionals, experts, community members, employers) opportunities, and (c)  Reflection: Having a Public Product allows more people to experience the work of our students, especially with the many digital and online opportunities (more on that later). Showcasing and exhibiting one’s work publicly allows for celebration, but also that necessary skills of being able to articulate and defend one’s learning.
Secondly, going public also adds several learning benefits. They are:

  • Students tend to buy-in to the work and take more ownership when they know that others will be seeing, critiquing and even assessing their work.
  • Students also walk away with tangible evidence and documentation of their work that can be part of their long-term and on-going work to be used by colleges, employers and others.
  • Students not only learn from their work, but from the work of others when they see projects during all stages of design and when presented. This can apply to teachers as well.
  • Students also have greater opportunity to network with more peers, professionals, experts, community members, teachers during all types of public product work.

Going public begins, typically, with students sharing their products in presentations in class to their peers and teacher. However, that can be just the beginning. Here are three areas where we can stretch our students while preparing them for working and living in the 21st century:


Traditionally, most of us associate portfolios with artists, writers and designers. In school, we have had watered down versions for years where students were asked to put their work in a folder that may or may not have been shared.
Well, we are in a new era. Forget AP scores, weighted GPA’s and SAT scores. We are now in a portfolio world and economy. Remember, in a “Gig Economy,” where our students are going to have to continually contract work and pitch themselves to clients, our students need a lifetime portfolio where they digitally present and publish their work….and themselves.

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Let me introduce you to Beverly Pham - a student at the University of Southern California ( I don’t know Beverly personally, but one look at her website (digital portfolio) lets me know she’s a pro. This portfolio - video, reporting, graphic design and more - showcases her academic and professional work. All of our students are entering a post-secondary world where they are competing digitally and internationally in this global economy with the likes of Beverly Pham.
All educators need to ask the questions:
Are my students ready?
Are they ready like Beverly is ready?
Are they ready to compete head on with Beverly?
How will others see and experience their work and skills?
My guess is that Beverly didn’t necessarily learn all of these skills, as well as how to digitally feature and display them, from her high school curriculum. But she should have.
Students, as well as educators, can house their portfolios at a number of free website building tools and applications. If the school is a GAFE site, many might use Google Sites that is part of their Google Applications. But there are literally dozens of free commercial sites (Wix, Weebly, ehost, Sitebuilder and many others). All of these have commercial upgrades, but are not required in order to have a fully-functioning site and portfolio.
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A student’s digital portfolio can house any number of things including, but not limited to presentations, writing, photos, videos, social media links, bios, resumes, testimonials and more.
In addition to getting a site set-up as their ongoing portfolios, many are also encouraging all students to purchase a url or domain with their name. For a few dollars a year, we can all own some derivation of our name as a domain. Once a student has purchased a domain, they can point whatever free website building tool site to that url. In only bought mine ( a few years ago and wish I would have started earlier.
There are lots of reasons why all of us should purchase a domain for our name. See more info here:


It’s not enough to have a portfolio. We need to have students also become regular digital content creators.

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One of the best ways to have students create quality content is to have all them create their own blog as well. Again, they have many free blog applications (Wordpress, Blogger (Google Apps.), etc.. Like the website building applications, they have paid upgrades. But they are never necessary. Having a blog can serve many purposes. First, all students need to be writing and reflecting about their work. This provides opportunities for higher level thinking and as a means to document what we do. Second, blogs also allows us a means to share our story. All of us have a story, a journey if you will, that can now be shared with others in order to connect, collaborate, motivate, inspire and learn from one another. Finally, blogs also allow students and others to develop a positive and professional digital footprint and brand while pursuing areas of specialty and expertise.
But in addition to blogging, one can become a content creator in other ways too. Think about students who produce videos starting their own YouTube channel. It’s creating a Flickr account for all of your photos.

Personal Branding (Social Media)


Many of us in the Ed Tech community have long been advocating for education to view Social Media as one of the new literacies. First, more and more colleges/universities, as well as employers, are looking at candidates’ social media profiles to make decisions about them. It can certainly be a problem if someone has lots of negative Social Media activity (profanity, racism, sexism, drugs and alcohol, sex). But I would argue that it’s also a problem if someone has no footprint whatsoever.
What do any of us get when we Google our names? Once we separate ourselves from our various same name global colleagues, what can the world find out about us online? Using Social Media as a vehicle to showcase any and all of our professional or academic work can support this idea of developing a positive digital footprint and being globally competitive. Students inherently view Social Media as primarily social. It’s our job, as educators, to show them the true, exponential power of Social Media as the Four C’s (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking).
One could argue that our social media activity is another form of our resume/portfolio. What if all students shared their best work on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others? Indeed, not only would that be a hands-on way of developing digital literacy and citizenship, but also a way for people to drive other people to their work.
We are rapidly moving towards defining student success and readiness by skill development and mastery. Our students need to have skills, but also be able to demonstrate and articulate them. Through digital portfolio development, digital publishing and personal branding, they can.

(photos courtesy of Foter, Pixabay and others)